At room temperature, formaldehyde is a colorless gas that sometimes has a noticeable smell.
Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is found in many materials and products in the home and workplace. Other names for formaldehyde are methylene oxide, oxomethane methylaldehyde, and formalin (when dissolved in water).
Breathing in formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. It can also cause symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and dizziness.
Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Several government agencies determined that formaldehyde can cause cancer in humans.
You can come in contact with formaldehyde while painting, sealing, making repairs or applying pest control treatment in your home or office. Some of these products may also contain other VOCs.
Most of the formaldehyde found indoors can come from:
- Car exhaust from cars without catalytic converters.
- Smoke from cigarettes and other tobacco products.
- Fuel in heating and cooking equipment, such as wood stoves, gas kitchen stoves and kerosene heaters.
- Fabric, drapes and furniture.
- Glues and adhesives, including those found in pressed wood products like particleboard, plywood, paneling and medium density fiberboard (MDF).
- Painting, coating and cleaning products.
- Insulation materials.
- Personal care products with chemical preservatives.
Sometimes porous, absorbent products, like sheetrock or carpets, that do not normally contain formaldehyde may absorb it from other sources and release it later. This is more likely to happen if there is a rise in temperature and humidity in the air over a period of time.
Since the indoor and outdoor air that we breathe normally contains some formaldehyde, we all breathe some in. The outdoor air in highly populated urban areas usually contains more formaldehyde than rural areas. Find out more about outdoor air pollutants
For most people, testing is not recommended. For people who are frequently around formaldehyde, like people working with formaldehyde, blood and urine analyses or other tests may show if there was damage to the lungs or if there was more damage throughout the body.
Formaldehyde and other air pollutants can build up inside your home if:
- It lacks ventilation or enough fresh air coming in.
- It is hot and humid inside your home.
Materials or products in your home that contain formaldehyde can add to the total amount of formaldehyde in the indoor air. This depends on the amount of formaldehyde in the product, how old the product is, where the product is in the home, and where the product is used.
We do not recommend testing for formaldehyde in indoor air.
There are several steps you can take to lower the amount of formaldehyde in the air:
- Increase ventilation – in some cases, opening the windows and doors to allow in fresh air from the outside can help. Air exchange units or ventilation systems can also help with air quality problems.
- Keep a moderate temperature inside the building – use air conditioning and a dehumidifier. High temperature and high humidity can increase the amount of formaldehyde that is released in the air from construction materials, products and furnishings.
- Reduce your use of products that contain formaldehyde – choose replacement or new building materials, products and furnishings that are low in formaldehyde or do not contain formaldehyde.
- Allow products to “air out” before bringing them inside the home.
- Read and follow directions about installation and use of any item containing formaldehyde – for example, if the label instructions say “use or install with adequate ventilation” then do so. If it is unclear what is meant by “adequate ventilation,” check with the company that makes the product.
- Idle vehicles or gas-powered equipment away from doors or windows and not in attached garages.
- Maintain fireplaces and wood stoves.
- Smoke outside.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development established a national standard for newly prefabricated and new mobile homes. Makers of these homes are allowed to use certain building materials and products as long as they do not release more than a certain level of formaldehyde in the air.
In 1982, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) because of the health risks to consumers. In older homes with UFFI insulation, the amount of formaldehyde released into the air was highest when it was installed and decreased over time. However, more formaldehyde may be released into the air if the UFFI gets wet.
The State of Vermont has standards for formaldehyde in the workplace. The Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) enforces these standards, which relate mainly to industrial or commercial work settings. VOSHA does not do inspections or test in private homes or apartments.
- Formaldehyde and Your Health — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Formaldehyde in Your Home: What You Need to Know — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Facts on Formaldehyde — Environmental Protection Agency
- Indoor Air Quality
- Contact the manufacturer of a product for information about formaldehyde and other materials used in making the product.